Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

A Prologue to the Biography of the Reverend James Blair*

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

A Prologue to the Biography of the Reverend James Blair*

Article excerpt

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,

for his mercy endures for ever.

Give thanks to the God of Gods,

for his mercy endures for ever.

The author of a collection of sermons first published in 1722 as Our Saviour's Divine Sermon on the Mount...Explain'd; and the Practice of It Recommended in Divers Sermons and Discourses described himself in the preface to that work as "an obscure Person, and from an obscure Corner of the World."1 Don't believe him. James Blair dissembles.

His vocation the church, Blair peddles in words. He understands the power both of words and the manner of their delivery. One need look no further than his sermons for evidence that the preacher has studied this art. Refuting the view that Christ delivered his Sermon on the Mount so as to emulate Moses's reception of the law on a mountain, Blair argues instead that the savior chose a mountain site in order to be "better heard and understood by this great Company of Auditors; it being natural upon such Occasions for any Man who is to speak to a Multitude, to take Advantage of an higher Station; that his Voice may be the better heard, and his Person seen, which has no small Influence on the Authority and Freedom of Elocution, so necessary in all Orators."2 In another discourse he analyzes Jesus's use of verbs in the second tense, concluding that this reveals the savior's intent to generalize his teachings to an audience beyond the men and women who heard his preaching in first century Palestine.3 And his preface emphasizes the importance of understanding the "the Coherence and Connexion of the Words; and the Scope and Design of the whole Discourse" if a preacher is to interpret a passage of scripture correctly.4 These are not the observations of a casual writer, but the reflections of an experienced speaker and author who realizes words are powerful tools that can persuade men to adopt a particular point of view or course of action.

Others recognize Blair's ability as well. Writing in the preface to the second edition of the preacher's sermons, the Reverend Daniel Waterland praised the discourses for their "clear and easy, yet masculine Style, equally fitted to the Capacities of common Christians, and to the improved Understandings of the knowing and judicious."5 A nineteenth-century bishop of Virginia described the sermons as "elegant."6 Not everyone, however, thinks so highly of how the preacher employs his skills. One opponent suggests as much when writing of an affidavit Blair had filed, intimating that his words should not always be trusted: "The Wit of Man can lay the foulest, as well as the finest Varnish upon any thing."7 Another put the point more bluntly, claiming the preacher "is a man of meek appearance & a master of the art of insinuation."8

James Blair is a gifted man. His own discourses as well as the observations of both opponents and supporters suggest that he is a man adept at the use of rhetoric. The ends towards which he employs that gift might determine the value of his art. As an author of sermons and an advocate for the Gospel Blair denounces sin, counsels sinners, exhorts the faithful, and offers spiritual guidance to men and women possessed of "heaven-born souls." In his sermons the preacher seeks to convey the truths of Christianity as understood by the Church of England and to persuade men to live lives marked by right belief and right behavior. But Blair writes other documents as well, among which we may include letters to ecclesiastical and imperial officials; a variety of memorials, affidavits, and proposals; and the preface mentioned above. In these the minister writes as an advocate for himself, and as a craftsman seeking favor he often guides the responses of correspondents and readers to an end he has held long in mind. Just as a discerning reader might divine Blair's intent before reading the first page of his pulpit discourses, an equally perceptive reader will realize that the minister shaped many of his other writings to do more than convey information. …

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